Controversial Civil Rights leader Malcolm X once said, "There is no better than adversity, every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time." These words were spoken by a man who was no stranger to adversity. He watched his father be killed by white supremacists when he was a child, got into trouble with the law a lot as a young man but persevered to make something of his life and became a vocal and dominant leader. Many remember Malcolm X for his strongly worded, provocative speeches but was a person who could also learn from his own mistakes. A conversion to Islam while in prison started his life on a new path, one free from the petty crimes of his past, a life with a purpose. Later, a pilgrimage to Mecca made him change his perspective and he returned from that journey preaching unity and working together to solve problems. He didn't preach non-violence like Martin Luther King Jr., but he did come back from the hajj a person who believed that people of different races could co-exist, a concept he did not think was possible before that transformative event in his life. Malcolm X's quote about adversity is really about character, about how it is our attitudes can determine how we deal with the obstacles in our life. Are we going to let those obstacles defeat us and just give up or are we going to try harder to overcome those obstacles? This is really what should have Minnesota Wild fans excited about the way the Houston Aeros have been playing more than anything else. If Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Assistant General Managers Brent Flahr and Jim Mill have accomplished anything in their time with the team is they have stockpiled a ton of guys who deal with adversity rather well. The most obvious obstacle for these young players has been the NHL lockout. Whether they had a real great shot of making the Wild's roster this year or not, it looks like 2012-13 will be without an NHL season and thus a lost NHL opportunity for some of these young prospects. I know this may sound crazy, but perhaps because of the lockout, and the fact the situation is shared for all these young players the reality was easier to deal with. It wasn't a matter of one or two players making it and the rest being sent down to season in the minors, instead they all were sent down there and that is true of young players of all of the league's teams. It was no longer a personal failing, but rather a situation beyond their control, and they are left to simply make the best of it.
So far the Wild's prospects have handled themselves quite well in that regard. Led by youngsters Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker, Marco Scandella, Matt Hackett and others the Aeros currently find themselves in 2nd place in the always tough west division with a 5-4-1-2 record. The Aeros got another dose of adversity early in the season in a 3-4 loss to Oklahoma City where the team lost Finnish wunderkind Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin on two collisions along the boards. You be the judge as to whether they were dirty or not. First, the Granlund hit.
Now the Brodin hit.
Strange music aside, it seems a bit strange a skill player like Taylor Hall would attempt such a gutless play. The AHL did not give Hall any supplemental discipline on the hit, but the Aeros didn't complain and when the two teams played again the next night Houston prevailed 4-3. This is the type of character this team has and while it is not good to lose two players with the skills of Granlund and Brodin the Wild's young prospects are not allowing that setback to define them. So how is this team responding so far?
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Scoring by committee
With a major influx of young skill to the Aeros lineup, the team has a far more balanced attack than in previous seasons where AHL veterans carried much of the load. Veterans still play an important part of the Aeros' attack, but its not up to them each night to win games. Rookies Zucker, Larsson and especially Charlie Coyle have been chipping in goals to more or less pace the team offensively. Coyle, with a solid 6'2" 220lbs frame is very difficult to move from the crease area and he uses that body to screen goaltenders and deflect pucks which is why he leads the team (not to mention all rookies in the AHL) with 7 goals. Despite just playing just 8 games this season before his aforementioned injury at Oklahoma City, Mikael Granlund has been the real deal chipping in 4 goals and 12 points over that span. Early on Granlund really has been the offensive catalyst he has been billed to be since the team drafted him in 2009. Zack Phillips has stepped up to fill Granlund's shoes as the set up man for the top line of Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle. The few veteran forwards the team has retained have also raised their game and Nick Palmieri, David McIntyre, Chad Rau and Justin Fontaine are starting to heat up offensively. We haven't seen a lot of offense from Brett Bulmer but it would be interesting to see how he does in a top 6 spot if Aeros Head Coach John Torchetti decided to give it a chance. He certainly has some offensive skills if given the opportunity to show it. Carson McMillan, Kris Foucault, Joel Broda are excellent soldiers and have a knack for scoring timely goals as they did when they all played for the Calgary Hitmen. Houston's 43 goals so far this season is 2nd best in the AHL's Western Conference, not too shabby for a squad led large in part by rookies.
Offensive support from the blueline
One thing Aeros GM Jim Mill wanted to see more of from the Aeros was offense from its defenseman. The team added former Bloomington Jefferson star Brian Connelly to anchor the power play and the offensive defenseman has delivered pretty well so far. Connelly is 2nd on the team in scoring with 2 goals and 11 points in 11 games and its not at the expense of being irresponsible in his own end as he has surprised many with his solid defensive play with a team leading +8. Veteran Marco Scandella has no goals for his credit but the excellent puck mover makes things happen with his skating and offensive instincts and his 8 helpers tie him for 2nd place on the club with Mikael Granlund. Chay Genoway has had to battle a bit more for ice time, but he too can bring some offense and Houston's blueline is filled with guys who are quick to deliver that first pass to get the offense moving in the right direction. Jonas Brodin did something this season he had failed to do in two seasons in the Swedish Eliteserien, that being scoring in the regular season which he has done twice already perhaps giving credence to experts who felt he had untapped offensive potential. It will be interesting to see how he plays after his injury. So far Aeros assistant coach, and former NHL defenseman Mike Van Ryn has done a nice job with this group.
Torchetti has the Aeros working hard at both ends of the ice
Never give up attitude
The Aeros have shown multiple times this season that giving up an early goal doesn't necessarily mean the game is over. The team has had a bunch of comebacks already; including 3 separate comebacks on Friday night against the Lake Erie Monsters. While the Aeros have been stung a bit in the shootout, the team has earned important 'mercy' points that could help the club claw its way into the playoffs. I have no doubt that is what the front office is expecting as are Wild fans, especially if the lockout costs us another NHL season. The Hockey News picked the Aeros to finish 11th in the American Hockey League's Western Conference, right now they currently sit in 7th. One player who embodies this tenacious, never give up attitude is rookie forward Johan Larsson. Larsson simply has a motor that never stops and while he is not likely to lead the team in scoring his relentless play at both ends of the ice is invaluable.
Its about as cliche as 'defensive wins championships' but in hockey it often reads 'good goaltending is necessary to win championships.' I am sure the news that the Wild signed Josh Harding to a 3-year contract was a little disconcerting for Hackett who has been patient and effective in his time in the AHL. Now with the lockout, there is less of a reason to be bitter about being with the Aeros since the only other destination would've been Europe since the big club is on hiatus. Hackett's numbers so far are not eye popping; in fact by Hackett's own standards they're a step backwards. With a 3.19GAA and .893% save percentage to go along with a 2-4-2 record one might say he needs to raise his game. In fact, he probably feels that pressure regardless of the Aeros' early success as his backup, Darcy Kuemper is off to another fine start with a 3-1 record, a stingy 2.15GAA and a .914% save percentage that hopefully will push Hackett to fix his mistakes expiditiously. Either way the Aeros have two solid options between the pipes and that can only serve to be a source of strength for the 5th youngest team in the American Hockey League.
Record: 5-4-1-2 (2nd in West Division)
Top 5 Scorers:
1. *#64 Mikael Granlund ~ 4G 8A = 12pts
2. #10 Brian Connelly ~ 2G 9A = 11pts
3. #3 Charlie Coyle ~ 7G 2A = 9pts
4. #37 Justin Fontaine ~ 4G 4A = 8pts
5. #6 Marco Scandella ~ 0G 8A = 8pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #4 Drew Bagnall ~ 37 PIM's
2. #44 Nick Palmieri ~ 18 PIM's
3. #22 Johan Larsson ~ 12 PIM's
1. #31 Matt Hackett (2-4-2) 3.15GAA .893%SP
2. #35 Darcy Kuemper (3-1-0) 2.15GAA .914%SP 1SO
*- denotes player is currently injured and out of the lineup.